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Virgin driver's cross-country trip, Day One: Isn't that the toll booth we saw two hours ago?

Editor's note: New York City's Sam Levin, a beginner driver, is kicking off his fellowship with Westword by documenting his cross-country trip. This is his first dispatch from the road.

A frantically shouting security guard ran toward my car, waving his arms back and forth as I struggled to find the right button to lower my window before I stopped my vehicle short.

It was just after 8 a.m., and less than twenty seconds into my road trip from New York City to Denver, I knew I had already committed some kind of potentially serious driving gaffe. My short-term goal was to make it out of my hometown of Manhattan without causing a collision or participating in any intense road rage. But it turns out that smoothly exiting the parking lot would've been a much more realistic aim.

The guard reached on top of my car and handed me my jacket, which I had left in a perfectly precarious spot atop the 2004 silver Camry I'd bought from my uncle three weeks earlier.

And it was only a few weeks before that that I actually got my driver's license.

But there I was, with my jacket safely secured inside my car, and a healthy dose of very-new-driver embarrassment, entering a crowded Manhattan street for the clumsy kickoff of my highly improbable, four-day (fingers crossed), 1,800-mile road trip across country.

Fortunately, I had my mother (mother-son bonding trip!) by my side to shout at me and inform me that there was in fact a security guard shouting at me. It was the first of many shouts, squeals, and cries of panic that would fill my vehicle on Day One. Unfortunately, though, she herself doesn't drive and also gets a little panicky when trying to navigate an iPhone GPS.

But alas, all those factors didn't stop us from hitting the road and trying our darndest to have a classic and reasonably safe cross-country driving adventure. And on our first day, we managed to anger -- to the best of our knowledge, at least -- only about four truckers with my reckless swerving and other amateur screw-ups. And we were even able to squeeze in three roadside attractions -- one of which was actually, possibly sort of worth the wrong-turn-filled detour needed to find it.

First stop: Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, where a UFO that sort of looks like an acorn allegedly fell in 1965. A model of this object created for a TV show still sits there today. It looks like a giant acorn. In the words of my mother upon pulling up to the lifeless street where this acorn thing is propped up, "Oh, this is embarrassing."

Second "attraction" was the Big Mac "Museum" in North Huntingdon, PA, which, contrary to its website, is probably not the "most tasteful museum in the world." To be fair, though, I can't really be a definitive source on that, since, after snapping a photo of the fourteen-foot-tall Big Mac model and learning some crucial Big Mac history (the packaging of the Big Mac returned to a "quilted wrap with a collar" in 1991!), our stomachs had a change of heart, and we ate burgers from Five Guys next door.

The third roadside stop, which we reached just as the sun set and as panic set in about where we would be sleeping, was a giant building shaped like a basket, where the Longaberger Company is stationed in Newark, Ohio. It's a building that looks like a basket. 'Nuff said. But ultimately, the first day of the driving adventure was not about oversized objects meant to amuse road trippers. For us, rather, it was really about, well, learning to drive. On the highway. Across country. I'm always a student! Here are a few examples:

• I could not get the gas pump into the car or out of the car for awkwardly long periods of time. I could not close the outer fuel door thing -- possibly related to my struggle to remove the pump. It is still slightly ajar now. This, I must admit, is an improvement from the first time I ever filled my car with gas five days earlier, in which I managed to spill gasoline on myself.

• For the two hours or so I spent driving at night, I could not for the life of me figure out if my lights were actually on. I was convinced that they were on and that it just looked dimmer compared to other cars because of my perspective in the driver's seat. When we finally stopped, my mom ran outside to see. They were not on.

• I went in the E-ZPass Lane without an E-ZPass. A sign there, meant for confused drivers like myself who only had cash, gave this piece of advice: "Don't Panic." I ignored the sign.

• That incident occurred at the exact same toll booth that I had passed nearly two hours earlier. Yeah.

And on and on and on. Somehow, miraculously, all the way to Columbus, Ohio -- my Day One destination.

More from our News archive: "Derrick Saunders, Denver cop, unfired despite driving 143 MPH while drunk."

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Sam Levin
Contact: Sam Levin